Federal Habeas Corpus - Death Penalty - Eleventh Circuit Affirms Lower Court Finding That Mentally Ill Prisoner Is Competent to Be Executed
FEDERAL HABEAS CORPUS--DEATH PENALTY--ELEVENTH CIRCUIT AFFIRMS LOWER COURT FINDING THAT MENTALLY ILL PRISONER IS COMPETENT TO BE EXECUTED.--Ferguson v. Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections, 716 F.3d 1315 (11th Cir.), cert. denied, 186 L. Ed. 2d 946 (2013).
While the common law has banned executing the insane for centuries, (1) the U.S. Supreme Court did not hold that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the capital punishment of incompetent prisoners until 1986. (2) Twenty-one years later, in Panetti v. Quarterman, (3) the Court held that the condemned need to have a "rational understanding"--as opposed to a mere "awareness"--of the connection between their crimes and their punishment in order to be deemed competent to be executed. (4) recently, in Ferguson v. Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections, (5) the Eleventh Circuit denied habeas relief to mentally ill death row inmate John Ferguson, (6) holding that Florida's execution-competency standard is not inconsistent with clearly established federal law and that the state supreme court reasonably applied the state's standard when it found the petitioner competent. (7) This decision results from a troublesome dynamic central to the way in which federal courts currently conduct habeas review of execution-incompetency claims: the interaction between vague Supreme Court competency precedent and deferential Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (8) (AEDPA) jurisprudence.
On July 27, 1977, Ferguson and two accomplices invaded a home, tied up and robbed the eight people inside, and shot all eight in the head. (9) six of the victims died. (10) On January 8, 1978, Ferguson crossed paths with a teenage couple, shooting the boy before brutally raping and murdering the girl. (11) Following two separate trials, Ferguson was convicted of all eight murders and sentenced to death. (12) After a series of direct and collateral appeals, the convictions became final. (13)
On September 5, 2012, Governor Rick Scott of Florida signed a warrant for Ferguson's execution. (14) in response, Ferguson requested a competency hearing. (15) Pursuant to Florida law, (16) Governor Scott "temporarily stayed the execution and appointed a commission of three psychiatrists" to determine whether Ferguson understood "the nature and effect of the death penalty and why it [was] to be imposed upon him." (17) All three psychiatrists concluded that Ferguson was not then mentally ill and was able to comprehend the nature of and reasons for his impending execution. (18) Following receipt of the commission's report, Governor Scott deemed Ferguson competent and lifted the stay of execution. (19)
Ferguson subsequently petitioned the state trial court, claiming that (1) executing him would violate the Eighth Amendment because he did not rationally understand the reasons for and consequences of execution and (2) Florida's method of assessing competency under Provenzano v. State (20) contravened the U.S. Supreme Court's holding in Panetti. (21) in response, the trial court issued a temporary stay of execution and held an evidentiary hearing to determine Ferguson's competency. (22) After two days of testimony, the judge issued an order stating that Ferguson had "failed to meet his burden." (23) The court agreed with the defense that Ferguson was a paranoid schizophrenic with a "genuine delusional belief that he is the Prince of God" (24) but found the testimony and opinions of the state experts "to be credible as to the limited question of Ferguson's competency to be executed." (25) The trial court ultimately found no evidence that Ferguson's "mental illness interfere[d] ... with his 'rational understanding' of the fact of his pending execution and the reason for it." (26) in addition, the court rejected Ferguson's claim that Panetti had invalidated Florida's competency standard, noting that the Florida Supreme Court had considered whether the petitioner in Provenzano had "a factual and rational understanding" of his impending execution. …